Archive for February, 2012

Abortion arguments and the kidney theft legend

February 18, 2012

Bear with me here.

Back in the 60s and 70s, when moral arguments about abortion were still about something more than tribal identity, one of the standard hypotheticals was the Violinist Argument: a worl-famous violinist, who has brought joy to millions and done no harm, finds himself (by no personal fault) suddenly without the use of a kidney, a liver or some other vital organ. He could recover, but needs to be hooked up to another person’s circulatory system for 6 months or so in order to survive. Someone with just the irght blood and tissue type. So, the question went, is it OK for a particularly zealous music lover, having learned of your fortuitous match, to jump out from behind a tree, knock you down and hook up your veins? Conversely, is it OK, once you wake up and find yourself entangled in tubing with a violinist staring at you with his artistic, deeply soulful eyes, to pull the IVs out and condemn him to death?  Remember that this will only last 6 months or so, and you’ll only face a certain amount of discomfort, and the risks of getting a septic IV connection are minimal.

The points of analogy are obvious, as are some of the points where the analogy breaks down. Mostly they have to do with consent and “culpability”. (And some with the character of the risks involved.)

So I was reading about the whole contraceptive-coverage fake controversy and it came to me that the kidney-theft UL is really a much better analogy, especially since the violinist version has pretty much been overtaken by advance in medical science. So, to review: Guy on vacation or business trip, lured to a hotel room by apparently-willing member of the appropriate gender, wakes up neatly incised, short one kidney that is no doubt going to a desperately needy recipient. Temporarily acute body modification that might have serious longterm consequences, check. In the cause of a deserving recipient, check. Motivated by lust, check. Consented to the lustful part, didn’t consent to the body modification, although “obviously” should have seen it coming, check. Would it be OK to go tearing through town to the nearest hospital and demand your kidney back?

The devil is in the details, and the body modification is loaded differently, oh, yeah, and the protagonist in one case is a man while the protagonist in the other is a woman. And yet the urge to differentiate these two hypotheticals seems so visceral.

I had wondered whether the popularity of the kidney-theft legend might even be a sort of sign of anxiety about legalized abortion (because other than slasher movies, there aren’t that many ways for illicit sex to go so horribly wrong for men’s bodies — well, yeah , HIV, but that has its own set of urban legends), but it turns out from snopes that the original germ of the story was probably the testimony of a guy who sold a kidney to an organ broker and had regrets. Um.


Most annoying component ever

February 8, 2012

The other day I put a new battery in an old digital tire gauge, hoping to revive it Nope. So just for the heck of it I took it apart and found that it didn’t matter whether the batter was dead or that gauge circuitry was still working, because there was no connection between the display and the rest of the thing.

Instead of wires or flex or something sensible, the designer used a piece of rubber with a zillion embedded parallel conductors. The idea, I guess, is to carry signals from a bunch of goldplated bumps on the main circuit board to a bunch of contacts on the display. As long as those two are properly aligned, it doesn’t matter whether the rubber bit is in exactly the right place, because it conducts across the piece but not lengthwise.

Until the rubber shrinks a little. Or the ends of the embedded conductors develop an oxide coating. Or moisture condenses anywhere near it. I’ve lost count of how many cheapjack little devices I’ve taken apart that might have been working fine, except that they couldn’t display anything because of one of those stupid little rubber bits. And each time (hope springs eternal) I’m pissed off again. I should really have learned by now.

For the manufacturers I guess it makes sense. Not only do they lower parts and manufacturing costs (no fancy soldering, no super-precise alignment fixtures), but they guarantee a steady stream of replacement purchases. And sure, I’ll never buy something with that particular brand name on it again, but the factory doesn’t care.

What’s missing from this story

February 7, 2012

Banks Paying Cash to Homeowners to Avoid Foreclosures (via eschaton)

Losses for lenders are about 15 percent lower on the sales than on foreclosures, which can take years to complete while taxes and legal, maintenance and other costs accumulate, according to Moody’s. The deals accounted for 33 percent of financially distressed transactions in November, up from 24 percent a year earlier, said CoreLogic Inc., a Santa Ana, California-based real estate information company.

Nowhere does anyone appear to mention the time value of money. As long as the real estate market is stagnant (or even falling) and the value of a house depends on things like maintenance and decorating, it makes enormous sense for a bank to take the money from a short sale now — and maybe even invest it in something that doesn’t go belly-up — rather than gamble that they will get a better price from a foreclosure sale a few years from now, or that the stones that are underwater householders will suddenly start bleeding green.

Say, for example, that the bank gets $200K out of a house now rather than the same $200K out of it in 18 months. That’s about $15K in profits that they could make (or $15K less interest they could pay whoever they’re borrowing from) even before the extra cost of the lawyers for foreclosure, the chance that the homeowner might walk away or even trash the place out, dropping the bank’s realized price substantially, or that the might fight the foreclosure and win because the bank doesn’t even properly hold the paper.

As long as the bank makes more money by getting a sale through now, it makes business sense for them to share that increment with the homeowner. So why haven’t banks been doing this all along? Some of them have — the article is reporting an increase in short sales from a quarter to a third of distressed transactions. But the answer, I think, is that the amount of money a bank is willing to offer a homeowner depends crucially on the power imbalances among the parties to the transaction. In previous years, at least according to reports, the power was mostly in the hands of mortgage-servicing companies, which made much more money by stringing out a loan and stringing out foreclosure. But servicers aren’t doing so hot, what with the criminal and civil liability for all those missing and falsified documents, so now the issue may be much more directly between the homeowner and the holder of the note.

Another possibility is that the economy is looking up enough that banks would like to have extra cash or borrowing capacity available on their balance sheets. That would be nice. But then again the bankers might be anticipating that prices will plummet further, and hoping to get out while they can…